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Showing posts with label Annie Ernaux The Years. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Annie Ernaux The Years. Show all posts

Friday 24 May 2024

Book Blogging since 2012: A Retrospective


My original reviews of books mentioned in this essay can be located by typing author and title into the search bar above.


I buy, read and review books, but not always in that order: sometimes I imagine a review then track down the book. I don’t hold library tickets so always have skin in the game, the unread books on my shelves failed investments.  The rewards are the pleasures (but also irritations) of reading and the more controllable pleasures of writing, to which is added such satisfaction as can be got from Google’s page view counter.

A review in a print journal might lead me to a book; as do footnote references and, latterly, a taste for reading and re-reading classics.  I browse in town centre bookshops but that challenges my sensibilities. It’s the wallpaper. The garish covers and lurid blurbs are the graphic design version of over-excited talk shows.  With exceptions (Penguin Classics and Modern Classics, Fitzcarraldo) the current state of book cover art is decidedly down market, comparing unfavourably with the stylish packaging of own brand goods in supermarkets

Blurbs are less reliable than small print food labels and not always to the advantage of the author. I have accumulated a selection of trade misdescriptions and reprise three here:

Faber published Alex Preston’s In Love and War (2017) and the reviewer at GQ made it onto cover telling us that it’s a book for the beach, “the perfect read to pair with that first sundowner”. I proceed to the novel: the hero Esmond dies horribly under Gestapo torture and his lover Ada dies in a concentration camp. Gin and Auschwitz? Really?

The 2018 Penguin paperback cover for Zadie Smith’s Swing Time quotes from a review in The Observer claiming that the novel “Has brilliant things to say about race, class and gender” which cuts Zadie Smith off at the ankles for a book in which dancing plays a leading part; it puts her on a level with Bernardine Evaristo. I did go to the original Observer review by Taiye Selasi, more subtle than the blurb extract, but if you want to sample the stunning prose of which Smith is capable - showing not saying - go to pages 321-30 of the paperback to find a beautifully structured and   emotionally-charged scene set in a small north London pizza joint.

In 2018 Penguin published Sally Vickers’ The Librarian and Adam Phillips was there on cover noting that “Vickers writes of relationships with undaunted clarity”. Well, I admire Adam Phillips and he sealed the purchase. The quote is actually from a review of another book by Vickers (Cousins) though as I started to read I could see how it worked for this one too:

“ ‘ What would you wish for, Sylvia?’ But he had stooped and was gathering her body to his, so she didn’t answer. “I have wanted to do that since I met you in the foundry”’

I felt like the victim of a Borat prank. Adam Phillips was writing tongue in cheek and I had bought a Mills & Swoon.



Most of us let that wonderful invention, Microsoft Word, run the writing show. There are hazards, especially for pedants.

In 2020 Princeton University Press published an academic monograph on loan words written by the British professor Richard Scholar. The cover of the book spells out its topic: ÉMIGRÉS French Words that Turned English. It’s a clever title because émigré is itself a loan word. But when I type it in lower case Microsoft automatically supplies two diacritical marks. That’s surely wrong. As an assimilated loan word emigré requires only that one diacritical mark to guide us to acceptable pronunciation: think café and naïve and compare with hotel which requires no guidance (those three words printed now as Microsoft delivered them).

Microsoft also obliges with an accent on capitalised CAFÉ though in French accents over capital letters are fairly optional. For proof, google photographs of “typical Parisian café”. In short, if someone asks whether written English uses diacritical marks, the correct answer is Yes, but sparingly, thank goodness. And in French, Yes, but the rules are a bit different for lower case and upper case. Don’t ask me to be more precise because life is short. But on such matters Microsoft can be plus royaliste que le roi. And Princeton University Press even more so with two accents on capitalised EMIGRES which do not appear when I type it. Dear Pedantic Reader, do you vote for two, one or no diacritical marks on the capitalised word made from the letters E M I G R E S?

There are real issues about the currently popular use of diacritical marks to render Roman alphabet versions of languages which don’t use the Roman alphabet. It’s a genuine question whether they undermine lazy colonialist mindsets or are themselves just a legacy of colonialism. There is a good basis for a case study in the rendering of spoken Yoruba in Oyinkan Braithwaite’s accomplished novel My Sister, The Serial Killer (2019).

But hold fire; there is an App now in common use by publishers, especially in the USA, which dumbs down texts, especially academic ones. The App may have a human incarnation as a copy editor following an inclusive rule book.

Richard Scholar’s book is an academic monograph aimed at a small audience of readers familiar with French and English literature especially of the eighteenth century.  It severely tests my own knowledge. But at page 114 I read this, “The French-speaking Genevan thinker and writer Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78) ….”.

What has gone wrong? The App has spotted a proper name and provided an explanatory gloss. Give it “William Shakespeare” and it would hand back “The English-speaking Stratford-upon-Avon poet and playwright …” I guess the idea is to get the book into the hands of 101 readers; but it won’t when the book is not pitched at them. And for actual readers it is just bizarre and, when repeated, reads as standardised patter which cuts across whatever personal style the author may have. The App knows nothing of prosody and never reads aloud to itself.

I can offer a hand proof that this App really is at work in Scholar’s book. At page 162, the title of a sequence of poems is given in untranslated French with no gloss that the words are those which the French-speaking painter Paul Gauguin (1848 - 1903) inscribed on his most famous painting. Now that would be useful 101 stuff. But how come the gloss isn’t there?  In the immediate vicinity of this bit of text there is no one’s name present to jolt the App into life.


Bad books get published; we all know that. But they are bad in different ways. There are the books which read like drafts of Ph.Ds. In a previous life, I was obliged to read such things; it’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it. It’s exasperating to read a printed book where the work clearly hasn’t been done. In 2011 Oxford University Press published Gerald Steinacher’s Nazis on the Run - disjointed, repetitive, and inconclusive where it needs to be decisive. The last problem was undoubtedly connected to problems of access (#openthevaticanarchives) but it also involves care in choices between modal verbs and adverbs to ensure that the text does not become simply evasive. Better to state clearly what the important question is and record that in the present state of knowledge it cannot be answered.  In a Ph D, modality matters.

Rather different is the case of the student who has received criticism, records it, and then carries on as if nothing has happened. In Emma Dabiri’s interesting Don’t Touch My Hair (2018) it happens twice. There is a long rant about cultural appropriation (pages 178ff) at the end of which the reader is offered “[Fred] Astaire is certainly worth further consideration when discussing the important distinction between appropriation and borrowing, the latter undoubtedly the basis of evolving culture” (page 190). That is a tacked-on remark which goes nowhere, just passed off as if duty done. In the second case, someone is actually quoted taking issue. The search for “Roots” (forgive the pun) is problematic because it usually stops when satisfying ones are found. Dabiri’s Africa is characterised by “wholeness” (a word which belongs in a chain which goes down all the way to wholesome and wholegrain). There isn’t much local violence in the African past which interests her and none at all in the African present. Her history remains fairly firmly in the realms of Uplifting Story, which publishers like. But she then quotes an email from Ron Eglash who tries to draw her away from the Search for Roots toward something more structural:


“The temptation is to dive into the competition over ‘who discovered it first’. But that kind of competition is a framework created for Intellectual Property rights…. Reversal never works. ‘We discovered it first’ is not a rebuke of white supremacy, it is just adopting their tactics. That is what Audre Lorde meant when she said, ‘ the master’s tools will never tear down the master’s house’ (pages 216 - 17)


These words just sit there. And the reader will no doubt go on calling out cultural appropriation and searching for roots. I’m with Audre Lorde.

Then there are books which have clearly involved a lot of googling and maybe not much else. As someone who likes to sit at home, I cannot plausibly deny it. But it’s an art and you need to do it extremely well.  Annie Ernaux and Olga Tokarczuk make it work but we lesser artists easily fail.  This is true of Tiffany Watt Smith’s very short Schadenfreude (2018) which though it has a German loan word for its title comes up in the text with “The Genealogy of Morals written by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche”. (Sound familiar?). 

But now, as a standout example of modern internet-enabled prose we have Peter Ackroyd’s cut and paste The English Soul (2024), a sort of hardback Wikipedia into which Ackroyd’s contribution is concentrated as a string of one-liners; I quote four and if you don’t like them there are others quoted in the full review of the book

On Thomas More, “The burnings [of heretics] continued, shedding fitful light on the English soul.” (page 73)

On the Authorized Version: “It might even act as a mirror of Englishness itself, and by extension the English soul” (140)

On George Herbert: “Little Gidding became, for Herbert, a vision of spirituality in the world. It became a corner of the English soul.” (147)

On William Blake: “Yet in truth his vision has never been lost. It is integral to the English soul.” (240)

Well, bless my English soul. Trot it out often enough and it becomes trite or simply vacuous.



Finally, there are translations which I do read. Nearly sixty years ago I was given L’Etranger to help improve my schoolboy French. A girlfriend who went on to become a Professor of French wanted to level me up. I thought to speed the process by setting beside it a copy of Penguin’s The Outsider, baffled to discover that the two texts didn’t seem to match up. I was unaware that I had bought Stuart Gilbert’s Variations on a Theme by Albert Camus. I have been wary ever since and when I’m going to read a book translated from French I’ll usually buy the French to put alongside. In that way, I was able to confirm that a sentence in the English translation of Annie Ernaux’s The Years which made no sense does in fact invert the order of events in the French original.

But what can you do when reading translations from languages you don’t know? Well, it can be contextually obvious that all is not well. Ismail Kadare’s The Concert (1988) was translated by Barbara Bray from the French translation from the Albanian. Set in Communist Albania, the version I read is peopled by Home Secretaries and Foreign Secretaries and one is surprised not to find Whitehall in Tirana. What cultural blindness blocked the use of Ministers of the Interior and Foreign Ministers? Out of the same failure of imagination we find Albanian Communists under pressure giving vent to Phew! (page 137) What a ghastly day! (139) and expressing frustration over the whole blessed evening (170). Unless I’m missing something (it happens) the register is so obviously wrong that it casts doubt on the whole translation. (Is there an Albanian reader out there who can confirm or deny?)















Tuesday 26 February 2019

Review: Annie Ernaux, The Years

France was (and in many respects, still is) a nation of shopkeepers, and Annie Ernaux was born in 1940 into that very large part of the French petite bourgeoisie which is separated by only a cigarette paper from the paysans and ouvriers. Her parents ran a café and épicerie, her early childhood marked by the everyday wartime and early post-war privations common to nearly everyone. But she is clever and achieves her own upward mobility into the teaching profession and, of course, eventually becomes a famous writer.

This is her autobiography published in 2008 and covering the whole period of her life until then. But the word “I” never occurs, except in occasional extracts from diaries. She writes in the third person (“She”) when directly referencing herself, and at other times uses a generic “We”, and less frequently, a “They”. The reader has surely noticed this before Ernaux draws attention to it and its motivation in the closing pages (page 225 in the English edition). But the English reader will not notice that the translator renders the author’s “On” and “Nous” fairly consistently as “We”, occasionally as "People" except at page 225 where the translated author mentions that she has been using both One and We.

 There is a certain amount of slippage, and sometimes I felt that the “We” of this English version sounded unavoidably like the English Royal We, the “We” which Her Majesty uses when talking about herself. This is unfortunate:

And we [translating Nous ], on the threshold of the 1980s, when we would enter our fortieth year, were suffused with a weary sweetness that came of accomplished tradition, and gazed around the table of faces, dark against the light. For a moment, we were struck by the strangeness…” (p 130)

As I read it, this “We” is rather like defensive irony, the voice we often slip into when talking, for example, about the embarrassments of adolescence. Its function is to permit us to talk about things which would otherwise remain unspoken. I think this is how  "She" and“We"  and "They" all function for Ernaux. Specifically, it allows her to write extensively about her own sexuality - the fumblings, the awakenings, the dissatisfactions,the experiments - in a context where she has children and other people close to her who are still alive. The distance of "She" and "We" or "They" provides protective cover; “I” would be too exposing. There is a topic there for a seminar discussion.

But “We” and "They" and "One" are also used because Ernaux is trying to write not only her own story but the history of her times, so that the autobiography is also a biography of a generation:

There is no “I” in what she views as a sort of impersonal autobiography. There is only “one” and “we”, as if now it were her turn to tell the story of the time-before (page 225)

All that the world has impressed upon her and her contemporaries she will use to reconstitute a common time….By retrieving the memory of collective memory in an individual memory, she will capture the lived dimension of History (page 224; see also 169 - 170)

That her experiences are typical of those of a larger group she establishes by means of one primary device, basically the device of assembling proper names. For each  year or decade, she recalls and writes out (often as not much more than lists), the names of currently popular songs, singers, films, TV programmes, household products, shop names, politicians of the moment,  faits divers (murders, crashes, suicides), slogans, catch-phrases and slang. Thus to evoke the varied destinations of the soixante-huitards after the events of 1968, she writes:

            Some smoked grass, lived in communes, established themselves as factory workers at Renault, went to Kathmandu, while other spent a week in Tabarka, read Charlie Hebdo, Fluide Glacial, L’Echo des Savanes, Taknonalasanté, Métal Hurlant, La Guele Ouverte, stuck flower decals on their car doors, and in their rooms hung posters of Che and the little girl burned by napalm.They wore Mao suits or ponchos, sat on the floor with cushions, burned incense, went to see the Grand Magic Circus, Last Tango in Paris, and Emmanuelle …. (page 108)

It continues with five more namings and the general stylistic choice of enumeration is sustained for over two hundred pages. I think it poses some problems. Clearly, The Years is not just a work of remembering. People just don’t remember as much as Ernaux does, at least without a prompt. Nowadays, the prompt is provided by the internet. You can simply Google to have your memory jolted: what did we wear in, say, 1970; what films came out that year; what were the slogans on the banners; what word did we most often use to express approval; what were the amusing cinema advertisements [ I have prompted myself there: at the cinema, there was the very sexy advertising for Dim collants, with sing-along music. The ads. were much talked about and it was said that Godard had directed them …].

You can surf for hours and you will be richly rewarded. Ernaux says as much:

The web was the royal road to remembrance of things past [ a double allusion here, to Freud and to Proust ]. Archives and all the old things that we’d never even imagined being able to find again arrived with no delay. Memory became inexhaustible, but the depth of time, its sensation conveyed through the odour and yellowing of paper, bent-back pages, paragraphs underscored in an unknown hand had disappeared. Here we dwelled in the infinite present (pages 209 - 210)

I think this identifies a real problem. The list which results from googling may generate a general nostalgia and often (Ernaux must surely hope) an “Oh, I remember that”. But the feelings evoked are essentially diffuse; they have not been focussed by a single, experiencing self; they were often enough given to you in the infinite present of the computer screen rather than by some inner searching and recovery. So though the lists evoke passing nostalgic thoughts, surely different for each reader, they do not really disturb, and there are simply too many of them. They are not like Proust’s entirely idiosyncratic experience of dipping his biscuit which nonetheless works because it can do duty for something different for each reader. Another seminar.

It’s true, there is a major thread of Ernaux’s book which is about the experiencing self, and which does disturb. That is the thread about her sexuality and I think it is the strongest part of the work, strongly expressed. It is also the part of the work which fitted into my own pre-conception that post-war France was simply Vichy but without the Germans: conservative, Catholic, claustrophobic without liberty or equality, neighbours primed to denounce you.

There is a third possible seminar besides those devoted to distancing pronouns and the lists. The Years ticked off in decades do not on their own provide a strong narrative structure. Of course, there is growing up, settling down, starting again, growing old. But partly because of the wider aspiration to write a collective biography, it doesn’t quite have the force one would get (and expect to get) from an "I" focussed Bildungsroman. Only in the last few pages does Ernaux take centre stage, very effectively so.
I bought French and English versions at the same time and decided to read the English one since I thought that in the French there would be too much temporary vocabulary from the past which needed looking up. I consulted the French when I was puzzled or disliked something in the English. I do think that translating “C’est à dire” as “i.e.” is unsatisfactory (page 158) and unnecessary when what is replaced is a colon which could have been retained (page 219). I.e.  just does not belong in literary prose. And I've not come across before the use of "abolishment" for "abolition" (page 136 and elsewhere)

And I think the following translation has to be either a howler or a typo:

A la fierté de ce que l’on fait se substituait celle de ce que l’on est, femme, gay, provincial, juif, arabe, etc. (page 205)

Pride in what one did was substituted for pride in what one was - female, gay, provincial, Jewish, Arab, etc. (page 184)

In the translation “for” should read “by”, or alternatively, “In place of pride in what one did was substituted pride in what one is …”: identity politics is what comes after, not what comes before.

Note added 15 April 2020: Ernaux's style could be compared with that of George Perec in Les Choses (1965), translated as Things.